The world has changed so rapidly since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, that it can be hard to keep up.
American politics is upside down. Europe is in the throes of a Russian invasion that could lead to World War III. And just when it appeared as though China would come out ahead, the pandemic has eviscerated the world’s second-largest economy, thanks to the onerous lockdowns that China’s autocratic president, Xi Jinping, has imposed upon the world’s most populous country. Now, as the Chinese Communist Party (prepares for its National Party Congress, where President Xi is expected to seek another term as ruler of China, Mr. Xi has pulled an improbable disappearing act.
Speculation has run rampant over the last several days as multiple flights in China were canceled along with most bus and high-speed rail travel in Beijing. Chinese troops have poured into Beijing and taken positions at strategic locations in China’s capital city, with no explanation for their presence given.
Many have insinuated that Xi Jinping is either dead or under house arrest. Others believe that Mr. Xi is merely under quarantine in the wake of his recent trip to Samarkand, where he met with the embattled Russian strongman, President Vladimir Putin, and signaled his continued support for Putin’s unpopular regime — even in the wake of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine — has led some to speculate that Mr. Xi may have been exposed to COVID-19 or may have been removed by elements opposed to China’s continued alliance with Russia.
The fact of the matter is that few inside or outside of China know what’s going on. This is because China’s domestic security services have for more than a decade been effective at preventing Western intelligence agencies from gaining useful intelligence on the inner workings of the CCP (which is an indictment of Western intelligence). All that is known is that Mr. Xi has not been seen in some time and that there are strange movements occurring in China’s military and political system.
Gordon G. Chang, China expert and the author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” does not believe a coup has taken place — if for only because the Chinese military has not declared martial law. Ordinarily, if a coup had occurred, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would swoop in and lock the whole country under their jackboots and place themselves in charge until the matter could be sorted out. Whatever is happening with China’s autocratic leader, there is a massive buildup of Chinese troops in Beijing. Still, the opaqueness of China’s political system coupled with the strange occurrences surrounding Mr. Xi’s disappearance indicates, in Mr. Chang’s estimation, that “in this environment almost any rumor is credible.”
Indian politician Subramanian Swamy has led a chorus of Indian personalities on social media who insist that Mr. Xi was overthrown in a silent military coup by PLA General Li Qiaoming, a hard-liner and an important voice on China’s powerful Central Committee. Although Mr. Xi himself is a hawk who was closely aligned with General Li throughout his presidency, why would Mr. Li overthrow President Xi if the Chinese leader was doing everything that Mr. Li wanted him to do? Hence, Gordon Chang’s skepticism about the coup theory.
Charles Burton of the MacDonald-Laurier Institute told me, “It’s not uncommon for China’s senior leaders to become inaccessible for days or weeks.” In fact, according to Mr. Burton, this is not Mr. Xi’s first disappearing act. For two weeks before he assumed the presidency in 2012 from Hu Jintao, Mr. Xi was out-of-pocket. Mr. Burton also fixated on the possibility of factional struggle within the CCP. He reminded me that the last time Mr. Xi disappeared, “the story was that he had been badly injured when a chair was thrown at him during a fractious Politburo meeting.”
And you thought the fighting between Democrats and Republicans in the United States was bad!
Mr. Burton thinks that legendary CCP Politburo member, the 105-year-old Song Ping (the last member of China’s famous second-generation of leaders who rose to prominence with Deng Xiaoping), and the former Chinese president, Hu Jintao, are “unhappy with Xi Jinping’s attempt to neutralize any political role for all those who hold different views on China’s current virulently anti-American direction and are making trouble for Xi [just before his likely ascension to a third term as leader of the CCP].”
“It is what Deng [Xiaoping] did during the Tiananmen Square Protests,” former US Congressman Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI) told me. Mr. McCotter, who now serves as a contributor to Human Events and American Greatness, was referring to the massive crackdown that Deng Xiaoping engaged in against members of the CCP who sympathized with the pro-democracy protesters during the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests. Mr. Deng’s objective was to maintain the CCP’s monopoly on political power in China while still liberalizing China’s economy. The pro-democracy elements inside the CCP threatened these calculations and therefore had to be purged from the CCP in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Protests.
Just as in 1989, the CCP is rife with internal division and dissent about the direction in which China’s current ruler has taken both the party and the country. Between Mr. Xi’s incredibly unpopular COVID-19 lockdowns over the last year as well as his undying support for international pariah Russia, it just might be that Mr. Xi’s enemies have decided to act against him. Or it could be that Mr. Xi knew he had enemies and needed to clean house before the National Party Congress commenced in November.
Gordon Chang ended his conversation with me on an ominous note, “My sense is that Xi’s regime is more unstable, and therefore, more dangerous, than before.”
Mr. Chang is correct. Mr. Xi’s disappearance should not be ignored or downplayed. Whatever is happening, it is consequential and will have serious implications for the future of China and the world. Whether Mr. Xi is cracking down on his opponents or if his enemies have managed to get the jump on him with an improbable coup, the National Party Congress in two months will be one of the most consequential moments in world history this decade.
Until he is seen again, world leaders will have to play, “Where in the World is Xi Jinping?” The answer may surprise us all and set the world down a much darker path than it was already heading down.
• Brandon J. Weichert is a geopolitical analyst and author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers). He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.